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Bob and me

I've never been very trendy, but there was one time in my life when I did find myself swept up by a trend, a big one. And so today I come here to confess: I am a charter member of that '70s show, a generation of starry-eyed idealists who became newspaper reporters all because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

This blog entry was posted on Nov. 16, 2005.

I've never been very trendy, but there was one time in my life when I did find myself swept up by a trend, a big one. And so today I come here to confess: I am a charter member of that '70s show, a generation of starry-eyed idealists who became newspaper reporters all because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

It all started in the summer of 1973. I wasn稚 a total geek when I was 14 -- just a total Watergate geek. I still remember getting home from shooting archery (badly) and swimming laps (slowly) at summer rec camp every day, and racing upstairs to our black-and-white set so I could catch John Dean痴 testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee.

The next year, on a family camping trip to the Catskills, I stayed up with a flashlight in my cot, pouring over the paperback edition of Richard Nixon痴 White House tape transcripts while raccoons foraged underneath. As I remember it three decades later, my first girlfriend even dumped me in the parking lot outside a showing of the film of �All the President痴 Men.� (Maybe that was a bit of foreshadowing -- associating Bob Woodward with disappointment.)

By the time that movie version of Woodward and Bernstein痴 reporting exploits came out in 1976, I had already made the irrevocable decision of a lifetime: To become a newspaper reporter. I壇 like to tell you about the day I blurted out, 的知 going to be just like Bob Woodward someday,� except it didn't exactly happen that way.

For one thing, I知 really more of a Bernstein -- the scruffier one, the better writer but not the one with the best sources, the one who would embark on a more erratic career path. And the truth is that, for someone who loves to write, who still gets an adrenaline rush from breaking news, and occasionally test drives the latest "conspiracy theory," I didn稚 really need Bob Woodward to convince me to become the ink-stained wretch that I am today.

But he and Bernstein were American heroes to me. And I very much wanted to do what they did -- to wrestle the powers that be from the bottom position, and win.

Well, at least that痴 what I thought Woodward did.

Looking back, I can't tell the exact moment that I realized that Bob Woodward wasn't the crusader and role model that my generation of eager-beaver journalists so foolishly thought he was. Maybe it was when he wrote his only non-political book, "Wired" -- a John Belushi bio that had all the charisma of a World War I-era anti-pot film. Or maybe it was his 1987 CIA book "Veil," with its reeks-of-phoniness-or-worse deathbed confession by Bill Casey of his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, because "I believed."

In the early 1990s, I read a book called "Silent Coup," a revisionist history of Watergate. It was a good read, but much of its theorizing has been proved off-base. It tried to make a case that Nixon aide and ex-general Alexander Haig had secretly forged a relationship with Navy man Woodward when he served in the Pentagon in 1970 -- evidence that might suggest that Haig was also "Deep Throat." But while that was wrong, there was something to the book's argument that Woodward wasn't who we thought he was.

The man who helped take down the president of the United States was in truth about as Establishment as they come -- a Yale grad from a tony suburb who worked for a Republican congressman as a young man, a Navy Vietnam vet who -- according to "Silent Coup" -- never opposed that war, and who even voted for Nixon. A man who was like a son to super-spook Bill Casey but was clearly repulsed by a shaggy John Belushi.

So what happened from 1972 to 1974? Woodward did what a young journalist does best: He hustled for a big story around the clock, hung out in a few parking garages, and he did a hell of a job, to say the least. He was also served well by the qualities that some of us would come to detest -- a deference to power, and an ability to forge ties mainly in areas like law enforcement and intelligence. Go back and read his "meet cute" at the White House with "Deep Throat," deputy FBI chief Mark Felt, to see what I'm talking about.

I still stand by my argument this spring that Felt is a hero, but like most of us humans, a very complicated soul. He seemed truly moved by righteous outrage over some of Nixon's worst abuses of power, but he was also likely driven by career bitterness and other less altruistic motives. Felt and others who turned against Nixon found the perfect media accomplice in the young and ambitious Woodward. And so Woodward didn't exactly take down the Establishment, so much as he helped one Establishment take down a different Establisment.

You want a muckraker? Go read some old I.F. Stone, or some recent Seymour Hersh.

And after 1974, being Bob Woodward became way too easy. Who needs cement parking garages when Washington's top players will call you onto their plush carpets, and spill the beans in broad daylight. Most people only hustle when they have to, and Woodward didn't have to anymore. He became what Christopher Hitchens called "the stenographer to the stars" -- a role that seemed to not trouble him in the least.

A few people started to see through Woodward's schtick -- the trade of access for a chance to sway an early draft of history, and his almost pathological refusal to analyze or interpret what he was told by the politically powerful. Joan Didion wrote that his books are all characterized by "a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured."

Maybe this is why the only thing that shocked me about today's "bombshell" report -- that Woodward was told by a senior White House official (according to one report, Stephen Hadley) about undercover CIA spy Valerie Plame in mid-June 2003 -- was that it didn't come out sooner.

For more than two years -- as the episode became one of the two biggest White House scandals since Watergate -- Woodward kept that key fact and related conversations quiet -- not just from prosecutors but from his boss and colleagues at the Post, even as he made frequent pundit appearances on cable TV, poo-poohing the whole matter.

A reporter would have worked the story, somehow. But the stenographer kept his mouth shut, changing the subject when he had to. And I don't hate him or even resent him for it; it's just Woodward being Woodward.

What is sad is that in a warped way, Woodward remained a role model for the journalists he had so inspired 30 years ago. When he and Bernstein were taking on Nixon, we all wanted to be investigative reporters, but somehow when he turned up on Larry King every week, we all aspired to ditch the chilly parking garage for a limo ride to the Green Room. If highly paid stenography was good enough for the man that Bob Schieffer recently called "the best reporter of our time," then by gosh it was good enough for most of us.

Until some war-mongering torture freaks came along and asked Woodward and his accolytes to take a little dictation.

Me? I lost interest in Woodward a long time ago. As someone who grew up and later worked in New York for much of my life, he's always reminded me a lot of Mets' phenom pitcher Doc Gooden. Just like Woodward, Gooden burst on the scene with two Hall of Fame seasons. And then, April after April, I kept waiting for the Gooden of 1984 and 1985 to come back, until the grudging acknowledgement he never would.

Thirty years later, I can't tell you how glad I am that I never became much like my former hero. I'd much rather be, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson at his crudest, a camel outside the Beltway pissing in, than one on the inside of the Beltway pissing out. Still, it's kind of sad to feel so jaded about Woodward's plight in 2005, when I can still summon, however faintly, the way I felt in that geeky summer of 1973.

I believed.